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Opinion: Education Is the Problem, Access Is the Solution

Money alone has yet to solve our chronic educational inequalities. Why believe it will this time?

This month the State Supreme Court will issue its next Abbott v. Burke ruling. The question before the court: Did Gov. Chris Christie’s cuts to school aid violate the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), the formula we use to assign monetary value to a child’s educational needs.

The Education Law Center, which represents children who live in our 31 Abbott districts, argues that New Jersey's failure to fully fund the formula in 2010 and 2011 deprives our neediest children of access to the "thorough and efficient system of education" promised by the State Constitution.

The Education Law Center is correct. Children in Paterson and Plainfield, in Trenton and Bridgeton, are indeed denied, as Judge Peter Doyne described in his report this past March, "the educational entitlement that the Constitution guarantees them."

But the problem is not lack of money. The problem is lack of access.

Money is the hammer in the Court’s toolkit and everything’s a nail. Thirty years of litigation and the system’s still broken: In the fourth most segregated school system in the country, one that’s fragmented into 581 school districts, we tirelessly pound away.

Money is easy. Access is hard.

A common benchmark for assessing adequate educational progress is the ability of third graders to read at grade level. A study out last month from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found "high school dropout rates for students who were unable to read on grade level by third grade were four times higher than students who read proficiently by third grade. Eighty-eight percent of students who did not graduate from high school were either 'below basic' or 'basic, not proficient' on reading tests in third grade."

All of our third graders take a standardized reading test called the ASK3. Here are three sets of elementary schools in neighboring districts, one Abbott and one non-Abbott. Test scores come from the 2010 Department of Education Report Card.

First example: Bradley Elementary School in Asbury Park, and Mountz Elementary in Spring Lake, adjacent towns in Monmouth County. At Bradley, the Abbott district school, 78.6 percent of third graders failed the ASK3. At Mountz, the non-Abbott next door, 13.6 percent failed.

Another example, this time from Mercer County: PJ Hill Elementary in Trenton and Riverside Elementary School in Princeton. In the Trenton school, 81 percent of third graders failed the ASK 3. In the Princeton school 20 percent did.

For the third set we’ll move to two schools in Camden County. At Dudley Elementary School in Camden City, 86.4 percent of third graders failed the third grade reading test. At Thomas Paine Elementary School in Cherry Hill, 9.5 percent failed.

It doesn’t get prettier a few years out. In 2010 all of Dudley’s sixth graders failed the ASK6. If the Annie E. Casey Foundation study is right, very few of the children there will ever graduate from high school.

When Judge Doyne issued his report in March, he cautioned that his conclusions were tightly constrained by his mandate to limit his findings as to whether or not Christie fully funded SFRA.

But he hints at the need for a different tool. Here he explains the narrowness of his decision (and castigates the state for deliberately ignoring those constraints):

"This court has not been asked…whether the underpinnings of SFRA need to be reexamined as it relates to the correlation between funding and student performance."

Still, the Supreme Court is not similarly constrained. And now is time to pick another tool, pry open the door, and let our needy children in.

Try this: SFRA mandates that the money follows the child. What if that money followed the children in Asbury Park next door to Spring Lake? What if our neediest children had access to higher-performing neighborhood schools?

Oh, the backlash. There’s no room in Spring Lake! What about transportation? We pay for our own neighborhood schools! The Supreme Court is legislating from the bench! Even the best schools can’t compensate for the handicaps of poverty!

True enough. But consider the alternative: a ceaseless hammering away at an ineffectual remedy that fails four out of five poor children.

Perhaps the Court in its wisdom will remain fast to its mandate to protect the constitutional rights of all residents, act boldly, and try something other than facile monetary solutions. Will open access be complex and challenging? Yes. But as another Abbott decision rolls off the presses, the children in Asbury Park, Trenton and Camden are locked out of a thorough and efficient system of education available to their peers in the next town.

Let them in.

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